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How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better

How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better

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Published by: zanchuk on Jun 30, 2008
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05/25/2013

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How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better 
Compete only with yourself, demand relentless feedback, and don’t forget to celebrate, says thissports psychologist and executive coach.
by 
Graham JonesUntil 1954, most people believed that a human being was incapable of running a mile in less than four minutes. But that very year, English miler Roger Bannister proved them wrong.“Doctors and scientists said that breaking the four-minute mile was impossible, that one would die in theattempt,” Bannister is reported to have said afterward. “Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing atthe finish line, I figured I was dead.” Which goes to show that in sports, as in business, the main obstacle toachieving “the impossible” may be a self-limiting mind-set.As a sports psychologist, I spent much of my career as a consultant to Olympic and world champions inrowing, swimming, squash, track and field, sailing, trampolining, and judo. Then in 1995, I teamed up withOlympic gold medal swimmer Adrian Moorhouse to start Lane4, a firm that has been bringing the lessonsfrom elite athletic performance to
Fortune
500 and FTSE 100 companies, with the help of other world-classathletes such as Greg Searle, Alison Mowbray, and Tom Murray. Sport is not business, of course, but theparallels are striking. In both worlds, elite performers are not born but made. Obviously, star athletes musthave some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successfulsenior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence inboth sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head;rather, it is mental toughness.Elite performers in both arenas thrive on pressure; they excel when the heat is turned up. Their rise to thetop is the result of very careful planning—of setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. Elite performers usecompetition to hone their skills, and they reinvent themselves continually to stay ahead of the pack. Finally,whenever they score big wins, top performers take time to celebrate their victories. Let’s look at how thesebehaviors translate to the executive suite.
Love the Pressure
You can’t stay at the top if you aren’t comfortable in high-stress situations. Indeed, the ability to remain coolunder fire is the one trait of elite performers that is most often thought of as inborn. But in fact you can learnto love the pressure—for driving you to perform better than you ever thought you could. To do that, however,you have to first make a
choice
to devote yourself passionately to self-improvement. Greg Searle, who wonan Olympic gold medal in rowing, is often asked whether success was worth the price. He always gives thesame reply: “I never made any sacrifices; I made choices.”Managing pressure is a lot easier if you can focus just on your own excellence. Top sports performers don’tallow themselves to be distracted by the victories or failures of others. They concentrate on what they cancontrol and forget the rest. They rarely let themselves be sidetracked by events outside a competition.World-class golfer Darren Clarke, for example, helped lead the European team to a Ryder Cup victory in2006, six weeks after the death of his beloved wife. Elite performers are masters of compartmentalization.If you want to be a high flier in business, you must be equally inner-focused and self-directed. Consider oneexecutive I’ll call Jack. When he was a young man, wrestling was his passion, and he turned down an offer from Harvard to attend a less-prominent undergraduate school that had a better-ranked wrestling team.Later, after earning his MBA, Jack was recruited by a prestigious investment-banking firm, where heeventually rose up to the rank of executive director. Even then, he wasn’t driven by any need to impressothers. “Don’t think for a minute I’m doing this for the status,” he once told me. “I’m doing it for myself. This isthe stuff I think about in the shower. I’d do it even if I didn’t earn a penny.”
 
People who are as self-motivated as Jack or Darren Clarke rarely indulge in self-flagellation. That’s not tosay that elite performers aren’t hard on themselves; they would not have gotten so far without being hard onthemselves. But when things go awry, business and sports superstars dust themselves off and move onAnother thing that helps star performers love the pressure is their ability to switch their involvement in their endeavors on and off. A good way to do this is to have a secondary passion in life. Rower Alison Mowbray,for example, always set time aside to practice the piano, despite her grueling athletic-training schedule. Notonly did she win a silver medal in the Olympics in 2004, but she also became an accomplished pianist in theprocess.For top executives, the adrenaline rush of the job can be so addictive that it’s difficult to break away. Butunless you are able to put the day behind you, as elite athletes can, you’ll inevitably run the risk of burningout. Many leading businesspeople are passionate about their hobbies; Richard Branson is famous for hishot-air balloon adventures, for instance. However, even small diversions such as bridge or the opera can beremarkably powerful in helping executives tune out and reenergize.
Fixate on the Long Term
Much of star athletes’ ability to rebound from defeat comes from an intense focus on long-term goals andaspirations. At the same time, both sports stars and their coaches are keenly aware that the road to long-term success is paved with small achievements.The trick here is to meticulously plan short-term goals so that performance will peak at major, rather thanminor, events. For athletes who participate in Olympic sports, for example, the training and preparation aregeared to a four-year cycle. However, these athletes may also be competing in world championships everyyear. The inevitable tension arising from this complicated timetable requires very careful management.Adrian Moorhouse’s Olympic gold medal success in 1988 is a case in point. His long-term goal was to swimthe 100-meter breaststroke in a time of 62 seconds, because he and his coach had calculated four years inadvance that this time should be good enough to win the gold. Of course, Adrian thought about winning inthe interim, but all of his training and practice was geared toward hitting a time of 62 seconds or better in theSummer Olympics in Seoul. He mapped out specific short-term goals in every area that would affect hisperformance—strength training, nutrition, mental toughness, technique and more—to make sure heachieved that ultimate goal.Successful executives often carefully plan out their path to a long-term goal too. I once coached a woman I’llcall Deborah, an IT manager who worked for a low-budget airline. Her long-term goal was to become asenior executive in three years. To that end, we identified several performance areas in which she needed toexcel—for example, increasing her reputation and influence among executives in other departments of thecompany and managing complex initiatives. We then identified short-term goals that underpinnedachievements in each performance area, such as joining a companywide task force and leading aninternational project. Together we built a system that closely monitored whether Deborah was achieving theinterim goals that would help her fulfill her long-term vision. It paid off. Two months short of her three-year target, Deborah was offered an opportunity to head up the $12 million in-flight business sales unit.
Use the Competition
It’s common in track-and-field sports for two elite athletes from different countries to train together. I was at apre-1996 Olympics training camp for the British team where 100-meter sprinter and then current Olympicchampion Linford Christie had a “guest” train with him. His training partner just happened to be NamibianFrankie Fredericks, a silver medalist who had been one of the major threats to Christie’s Olympic crown.
World champion rower Tom Murray told me just how competing with the best inspiredhim to higher achievement. Murray was part of a group of 40 rowers selected to traintogether with the hopes of gaining one of the 14 spots on the 1996 U.S. Olympic rowingteam. Because the final team was chosen only two months before the Atlanta games, this
 
meant that the group of 40 trained together for almost four years.
As Murray recalled, one of thelast performance evaluations during the final week leading up to the naming of the Olympic team involved a2,000-meter test on the rowing machine. The 40 athletes took it in four waves of 10; Murray went in the thirdwave. During the first two waves, 15 rowers set personal best times, and two recorded times that were faster than anyone in the U.S. had ever gone. The benchmark was immediately raised. Murray realized that heneeded to row faster than he’d anticipated. He ended up bettering his previous personal best by threeseconds and subsequently made the 1996 team.If you hope to make it to the very top, like Murray, you too will need to make sure you “train” with the peoplewho will push you the hardest. I once coached an executive I’ll call Karl. He declined an opportunity to take aposition as the second-in-command at a competitor’s firm at twice his current salary. Karl passed up whatlooked like a standout career opportunity because his current company was deeply committed to coachinghim and a cohort of other senior executives on how to become better leaders. Karl had a reputation for burning people out, and he realized that if he moved on, he would continue that pattern of behavior. Heremained in the same job because he knew that his coach and peers would help him grow and change hisways.Smart companies consciously create situations in which their elite performers push one another to levelsthey would never reach if they were working with less-accomplished colleagues. Talent developmentprograms that bring together a company’s stars for intensive training often serve precisely such a purpose. If you want to become a world-class executive, getting into such a program should be one of your first goals.
Reinvent Yourself 
It’s hard enough getting to the top, but staying there is even harder. You’ve won that Olympic medal or broken that world record or racked up more wins than anyone in your sport. So how do you motivateyourself to embark on another cycle of building the mental and physical endurance required to win the nexttime, especially now that you have become the benchmark? That is one of the most difficult challengesfacing elite performers, who have to keep reinventing themselves.Consider trampolinist Sue Shotton. I was working with her when she achieved the number one rankingamong women in 1983—that is, she was considered to be the best female trampolinist in the world. Yet shehad still not won a world championship.Shotton was determined to capture that title, and she left nothing to chance. She challenged herself constantly by working with specialists such as physiologists, biomechanists, and elite sports coaches whokept her up to date on cutting-edge thinking. She perfected new moves based on video analysis; she trieddifferent ways of boosting her energy based on nutritional intake. Her efforts to find ways of staying ahead of fiercely ambitious competitors paid off when she won the world championship in 1984, becoming the firstBritish woman ever to hold the title.Shotton had an insatiable appetite for feedback—a quality I have seen in all the top business performers Ihave worked with. They have a particularly strong need for instant, in the moment feedback. One top salesand marketing director I worked with told me that he would never have stayed at his current position if theCEO hadn’t given him relentless, sometimes brutally honest critiques.If you’re like the elite business performers I have coached, you too are hungry for advice on how to developand progress. One word of caution, however: While it’s good to feel challenged, you need to make sure thatany feedback you get is constructive. If criticism doesn’t seem helpful at first, probe to see if you can getuseful insights about what’s behind the negative feedback. Get more specifics. You should be able to seeconcrete improvements in your performance after getting detailed coaching advice
Celebrate the Victories

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